La Traviata, SF Opera

Lavish sets and costumes notwithstanding, this production is, musically, a mixed bag.

Music by Giuseppe Verdi

Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave (based on “La Dame aux camélias” by Alexandre Dumas fils)

Conducted by Nicola Luisotti (and by Giuseppe Finzi at July performances)

Directed by Laurie Feldman (original production directed by John Copley)

June 11-July 13, 2014

“La Traviata,” that quintessential tale of a Parisian courtesan-with-a-heart-of-gold-except-she-dies-of-consumption-at-the-end, is one of Verdi’s most beautiful and beloved operas. That’s the first reason to go and see the revival at San Francisco Opera. The second is the production, originally directed by John Copley with lavish sets by John Conklin and period costumes by David Walker. I understand they’ve been around a while, but I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing them and they look none the worse for wear. They exceed each other in each act, whether in a ballroom, a summer retreat or a posh gambling hall. Of course, one must make an exception at the end because there is only so much you can do with a sickroom and a nightgown.

Musically, this production is a bit of a mixed bag. Violetta, the beautiful and sought-after courtesan who abandons the high life for the love of a country boy, is well sung by Nicole Cabell (Ailyn Pérez takes over the role in July), but her beloved Alfredo (the Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, who alternates with Stephen Costello for this run), was a different story. Although handsome enough to turn any woman’s head and heart, Pirgu’s wobbly voice just couldn’t stay on pitch. Almost worse, he rarely addressed his leading lady, even when professing his undying devotion, preferring to sing directly to the audience. This doesn’t make for a lot of chemistry. The power of Pirgu’s voice seemed to improve by the third act. Maybe this guy just needs a lot of time to warm up.

Alfredo’s papa, who comes in from the country to save his son from ruin, setting the lovers’ tragedy in motion, is sung by Vladimir Stoyanov (also sung at alternate performances by Quinn Kelsey) and, like-father-like-son, was only marginally better. Stoyanov was so stiff and wooden, he might better have phoned in his performance. His great second act duet, begging Violetta to give up her lover, some of the loveliest music in the Verdi canon and a prime example of his “father-daughter” ensembles, was beautifully sung but had little or no connection between the characters.

Smaller parts fared better. Zanda Svede made a nice debut as Violetta’s fun-loving friend Flora, as did Erin Johnson as the faithful servant Annina. But smaller parts are, well, small.

Nicola Luisotti conducted at an uneven pace and often allowed the orchestra to overwhelm the singers. The opera chorus sang well, although the gypsy fortune teller scene in Act III was as silly as ever (sadly, Verdi wrote it that way), redeemed only by Fanny Ara, Devon LaRussa and Timo Nunez, a fine trio of Spanish dancers (choreography by Yaelisa).

In short, a decent but not great “Traviata.” But, if you love this music, a good “Traviata” is better than none at all.

Suzanne Weiss

San Francisco, CA
Suzanne Weiss has been writing about the arts for the past 35 years. Formerly Arts Editor for the papers of Pioneer Press in the northern Chicago suburban area, her work also has appeared in Stagebill and Crain’s Chicago Business, among other publications. Since moving to the Bay Area she has reviewed theater, opera, dance and the occasional film for the San Mateo Times, “J” and is a regular contributor to culturevulture. She is the author of “Glencoe, Queen of Suburbs.”